Can a embryo or fetus feel pain?
Can an embryo feel pain?
The answer is a definite no. The vast majority of pregnancy
terminations -- whether due to miscarriages, elective abortions, ectopic
pregnancies, etc. occur before the embryo becomes a fetus at or near the end of
the first trimester. All of the mechanisms needed for an embryo to feel pain are
Many pro-life groups emphasize that the embryo develops pain sensors about
seven weeks after conception. Unfortunately, for whatever reason, they often do not explain the full
picture. Many people without medical training naturally assume that the presence
of these sensors will enable the embryo to feel pain. However, sensing of pain
requires a complete system, including:
Pain sensors to sense the pain,
Nerve pathways to convey pain signals from the sensors, up the spine,
and into the brain, and
The existence of higher brain functions to convert those signals into
feelings of pain.
Since the full system is not present until after the embryo becomes a fetus, it can
be safely concluded that human embryos cannot feel pain.
Can a fetus feel pain?
The short answer is maybe. At an advanced stage of pregnancy, a fetus
is probably capable of capable of feeling pain. There appears to be no consensus among experts about
whether this happens and at what point in the pregnancy the ability to sense pain
Many physicians and researchers of fetal development believe that synaptic
connections within the fetus' brain are necessary to perceive pain. These are not formed
until the third
trimester, when fewer than 1% of all pregnancy terminations are done, when
miscarriages are very rare and when ectopic pregnancies had long since been
example, researchers at the University of California, San Francisco, CA
wrote that babies born before 30 weeks’ gestation lack "functional pain
perception." They suggested that this is one indicator that "fetal
perception of pain is unlikely before the third trimester." 1
Some mental and medical professionals suggest that a fetus cannot feel
pain, no matter how far developed. One is Stuart Derbyshire, a
psychologist at the University of Birmingham, UK, who is an expert specializing
in how the brain feels pain. He wrote that there is "good evidence that
fetuses cannot experience pain." According to World Science, he
argues that the complex medical processes necessary for the experience of
pain cannot begin until the jolt of life outside the womb kick starts them.
Thus, a fetus -- no matter how advanced in development -- cannot sense pain.
He believes that the presence of pain in newborns is not a sign that a fetus at the same
gestational age can feel pain. World Science comments:
"The brain circuitry for processing pain seems to be complete by 26
weeks' gestation, he wrote. But true pain requires not only development
of the brain but also development of the mind to accommodate the
subjectivity of pain."
"This mental development occurs only outside the womb, he added, through
the baby’s actions and interactions with caregivers. The chemical
environment in the uterus encourages sleep and suppresses higher-level
brain activity necessary for pain perception, wrote Derbyshire, who uses
brain scans frequently in his research." 2
Others, mostly pro-life advocates, believe -- or at least imply -- that a fetus as early as 7 weeks
after conception can feel pain. Thus, they believe that a fetus can feel pain part way
through the first trimester, when most abortions are actually performed
Some of the experts' opinions may be so heavily biased by their
pro-life/pro-choice stance that they appear incapable of making objective observations.
Why pain is so important:
Many women seriously consider this factor when they are deciding whether or not to have
an abortion. They are reluctant to submit to an operation that would be painful to the
fetus. Women deserve to have precise information on which to base their decision.
Unfortunately, emotional factors seem to intrude in this, as in all other matters related
to abortion. Information is very easy to find. But it is highly contradictory
and its accuracy is difficult to
A second consideration is that, in rare cases, administering anesthesia to
the fetus could cause bleeding, breathing problems and other complications,
including death -- for the woman." 3,4 So, administering anesthesia to the fetus should be avoided if it
cannot sense pain.
More about pain:
Pain in an adult, child, newborn or late-term fetus originates as an electrical signal
in some of the body's pain receptors. This signal is sent via nerve pathways to the spinal
column, then to the thalamus - an egg-shaped structure within the brain. Finally the
signal is transferred to the cerebral cortex where it is sensed as pain. In a fetus, the
pain receptors develop around 7 weeks after conception; the spino-thalamic system at about
13 weeks. However, the connections to the cortex are established only after about 26 weeks into
pregnancy -- well into the third trimester.
Some pro-life advocates believe that pain can be felt by the fetus when these
systems are only partly formed.
Most physicians, medical researchers, and pro-choice advocates believe that the complete system
has to be "wired up" before the fetus can feel pain - i.e.
sometime after about 26 weeks into pregnancy. As noted above, some believe that a
fetus cannot feel pain until after birth, no matter how far the pregnancy has
The first direct scientific study of pain in premature babies involved 18
newborn preemies aged 25 to 45 weeks after conception. According to World Science:
"Brain scans taken while babies were having blood tests registered a
surge of blood and oxygen in sensory areas in babies’ brains, according to
the researchers, showing that the pain was processed in higher levels of the
"A key brain area involved, called the somatosensory cortex, helps process
sensations from the body surface and is also linked to pain sensation in
adults, according to the researchers....
" 'Repeated painful procedures are a significant stressor and lead to
increased sensitivity to other non-painful procedures,' said Maria
Fitzgerald of University College. The researchers said the study points up
the need for better pain-control methods for infants.
They insisted, though, that the study says nothing about pain in unborn
The following information sources were used to prepare and update the above
essay. The hyperlinks are not necessarily still active today.
- Article, Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA), 2005-AUG-24/31.
- Stuart Derbyshire, Article, British Medical Journal, 2006-APR-15.
- Luke Shockman, "Abortion debate foes tap
into technology to serve their beliefs. Advances like ultrasound used by both,"
Toledo Blade, 2005-OCT-03, at: http://toledoblade.com/
- "JAMA Editor Defends Publishing Fetal Pain Review Despite Criticism
for Not Disclosing Authors' Abortion-Related Work," Medical News Today,
2005-AUG-29, at: http://www.medicalnewstoday.com/
- Article, Journal of Neuroscience, 2006-APR-05.
- "Premature babies feel pain -- but fetuses don't, researchers claim,"
World Science, 2005-APR-14, at: http://www.world-science.net/
Copyright © 1999 to 2010 by Ontario
Consultants on Religious Tolerance
Latest update: 2010-MAY-15
Author: B.A. Robinson